The Hell, also known as the Gamkaskloof in the Swartberge, was completely isolated for many, many years. While automation, motorisation and industrialisation took the world by storm, time stood still in the valley until four young adventurers decided to carry the first car into Die Hel in 1958.
Text: Leilani Basson
Photography: courtesy of Zannie van der Walt
The Hell and its residents have always been a bit of an oddity since the first settlers discovered it in 1830. Their secluded life — with the only contact with civilisation being via a few dangerous footpaths — made for many a wild and woolly tale about the people who chose hardship and struggle over comfort and ease. How they fared depended on the weather and the most recent harvest.
The residents had no electricity or telephones, kept their money in tins under the bed and preferred to trade with their produce rather than use cash.
The quickest way out of the valley was by climbing “the ladder” — a steep and dangerous cliff path of 20km. The few other hellishly steep footpaths could only be navigated by hardened men and good-tempered donkeys.
A trip to the nearest towns of Prince Albert or Calitzdorp took several days, and it was mainly the men who occasionally ventured outside the valley. Women and children led an isolated life. They lived off the land, learned from the Bible and entertained each other with story-telling, games and seasonal festivals.
From time to time curious adventure seekers or travellers made the effort to reach the mysterious community, to see if the tales they heard were true. But apart from that the valley remained untouched by outside “evils”.
In September 1958, four young men from Tulbagh (Ben van Zyl, Dirk van Zyl, Izak Burger and Andries van den Berg) decided to take a trip to uncover the secrets of Die Hel. They set off on a Friday night, slept in the loading bay of the old lorry they travelled in, and then hiked down the treacherous hills into the valley the next morning. They were welcomed by a Mr Snyman — one of the handful of klower (valley people), as they called themselves. The visitors were invited to stay and share the weekend with Snyman and his family… and the rest of the klowers.
During the memorable weekend, the four men realised that none of the children – and only a few of the adults — had ever seen a car or anything mechanically driven. They pledged to bring a car into valley, even if it was the last thing they did.
Back home, they searched for a “cheapie” that was still in working order. They bought a 1938 Morris for R20, and 14 days later they were on their way back to Die Hel. Although the car had no lights or windscreen, it was in good nick.
Upon reaching the Seweweekspoort, they revelled in the thought that this Morris would be the first car to travel beyond that point.
A message was sent a few days before their departure to ask the klowers to send a group to help them get the car down the mountain. Sure enough, eight men and four donkeys were there to meet them, hell bent on getting the futuristic four-wheeled wonder down to their valley.
Over treacherous slopes and boulders, through rivers and thick sand, the men and the donkeys sweated it out. Late that afternoon they reached the first houses in the valley.
Mr Snyman, new owner of the first ever vehicle in the valley, had driven army trucks during the Second World War. He couldn’t wait to get the Morris started, and soon the engine fired up.
Children bawled in terror and bolted into the bushes at first sight of this stuttering black monster. They took some convincing that the little car would not cause them any harm.
Mr Snyman was the man! All the klowers – from the Bo-kloof to the Onder-kloof (upper valley to the lower valley) — rushed from their homes to witness the coming of a new age.
Although the Morris could only be driven inside the village, its arrival spurred the desire for a road to be built up the mountain, so that it could go out of Die Hel and have access to the outside world.
Within five years, the building of a road began. The move was the beginning of the end for an untainted little community that today exists only in photos, writings and the memories of the few klowers left behind.